I once read a food column about true love, or maybe it was a love column about food: while passing through the rural Midwest you are served an insanely good tiramisu. You spend the rest of your life trying to find that same delight again. It cannot be beat, it blew your mind, it is not a memory.
I have a similar story only it is with collards. I discovered them when I wasn’t looking, I wasn’t even hungry, the helping was the last scrape left in the pan at the annual Christmas party we have out in the potato grader. I walked through the smoke and the whiskey, the dice throwing and the dancing, toward my mother, who pointed toward the food. “You better try some of these,” she called out, pointing to the little bit left, “before there is nothing left.” The conveyor belt was covered and converted with festive crepe paper. The party was more than half over; foil pans, grease stains, empty cups, my name was slurred. The large wood stove was cranking. We were a loose bunch, the full-time guys, the stackers, the baggers, the guys who worked the dirt table or the mule-train; we were all drawn near in this warehouse-like barn.
The collards did not look appetizing. They were cold and grayish-green. A little pool of congealed water surrounded the meager portion. This was not a spoonful, this was the tiny bit that is impossible to get unless you pick the tray up and tip it. I took the collards, mainly because I didn’t want to offend the woman who’d made it—she was talking to my mother. I got some potato salad. I had a little Jack Daniel’s in my cup. At first, I ate the greens with the potatoes, sort of caught a shard of them with the outer prong of the fork, so that I could taste them very gingerly. I was not expecting a pleasant taste.
Collard seed was ordered that January. Every year when I start the seeds, my mouth waters. And again when we transplant them. Collards are just big kale, non-heading cabbage, you can harvest the same plant time and again—gather the top leaves, cut, and wrap with a rubber band—and they just keep growing, hot and dry, no problem, when it gets cold, they get sweeter. If I see them on a menu I’ll order them. But I’ve been as disappointed in my own kitchen as I have been in others’. Every time I await the preparation, my teeth are dividing the succulent leaves, there is butter, salt and sweetness, a hint of pork—what part of the pork?—has been spirited into this dish, my anticipation is for naught. Many dishes have been good, even delicious but nothing nearly so divine.
Bonnie didn’t like me asking about how she made the collards. I approached, empty plate in hand. She kind of screwed up her face, either I was stupid or lying. She incredulously, briefly told me how she makes her greens. I knew she wasn’t telling me everything; three ingredients don’t a simple dish make.